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Public and School Libraries in Decline: When We Need Them

Posted: 2011-09-21

This important commentary by NCTE President Yvonne Siu-Runyan is from the NCTE Chronicle, Sept. 2011

Libraries are not antiquated and are vital for communities

and schools! An informed citizenry is the foundation

of a democratic society.

Children use libraries.

Surveys done in the United States and the United Kingdom

show that children get a surprisingly large percentage

of their books from libraries. When asked where they

got the book they were reading now, between 30 percent

and 99 percent of the children interviewed mentioned

some kind of library.1

The school library is especially important as a source

of books. A survey of 40,000 teachers conducted by

Scholastic, Inc., and the Gates Foundation2 included the

following question: "Where do your students get books

for their independent reading most often? Select all that

apply." The school library was the clear winner. According

to the teachers, 83 percent of all students said they

got books from the school library, compared to 38 percent

from public libraries and 20 percent from retailers.

For high school students, 80 percent got books from the

school library, compared to 46 percent from public libraries

and 35 percent from retailers.

Adults use libraries.

According to the January 2011 Harris Poll of over 1000

adults,3 an astounding 58 percent said that they had a

library card, and 62 percent said they had visited a public

library in person during the last year; 23 percent had visited

the library more than ten times. Nearly all of those

interviewed (94 percent) agreed with this statement: "Because

it provides free access to materials and resources,

the public library plays an important role in giving everyone

a chance to succeed," and 79 percent agreed that "my

public library deserves more funding."

Better libraries mean better reading.

Studies show that higher quality school and public

libraries correlate with higher scores on reading tests

done at the US state level,4 at the national level,5 and at

the international level.6 Aspects of school library quality

relate to reading achievement include the size of the

collection, the presence of a credentialed librarian, and

overall staffing.7

All this makes sense. There is consistent evidence

showing that when children have access to books, they

read them, and when they read a lot, all aspects of literacy


High levels of poverty mean little access to


Study after study reveals that children of poverty have

very little access to books at home and in their communities—

fewer bookstores and fewer, less well-stocked

public libraries that are open fewer hours.9 Tragically,

school is not helping. Schools in high-poverty areas have

inferior school libraries and inferior classroom libraries.10

Children of poverty are blocked from access to books everywhere

in their lives. Lack of access to books is a major

reason why children of poverty consistently do poorly on

reading tests.

Access to books appears to offset the

impact of poverty.

A number of studies have appeared in the last few years

indicating that access to books not only has a positive

effect on reading achievement, but also that the positive

impact of access is as large as the negative impact of

poverty.11 This suggests that a good library can offset the

effects of poverty on reading achievement.

Public library funding has declined.

In the years 2008–2010, more than half the states that

responded to a survey from the American Library Association

reported a decrease in funding.12 A Library Journal

survey published in January 2011 revealed similar findings.

In cities with populations above one million, 86 percent of

public librarians responding reported budget cuts.13

School library funding has declined.

The American Library Association reported that school

library funding is declining and the decline is more severe

in places where school libraries are needed the most—in

high-poverty areas. Overall, school expenditures on information

resources from 2009 to 2010 decreased 9.4 percent,

but in high-poverty areas, the decrease was 25 percent.14

The results of this decrease have been felt in books and

periodicals collection sizes. The overall decline in number

of books was 2.6 percent, but in high poverty areas it was

4 percent.15 The overall decline in periodical subscriptions

was 11 percent, but in high poverty areas it was 22 percent.16

The US Department of Education recently eliminated

the Literacy through School Libraries grant, which provides

about $20 million per year to school libraries in high

poverty areas.17

Why we still need books and libraries

Only a small percentage of information contained in print is

on the Internet18. The Web is not a substitute for libraries.

A popular argument these days is that computers and

the Internet will eliminate the need for traditional libraries

filled with books and magazines. But for “Kindle-ization”

to take over libraries, or even be a significant threat, the

costs must go down enormously. E-book readers such as

the Kindle cost at least $100, and individual e-books cost

around $10.

The high cost of e-readers and e-books makes it difficult

for libraries to lend them out. At this time, only 6 percent

of school libraries circulate books on e-book readers,

and one publisher (HarperCollins) has announced limits

on how many times an e-book can be checked out from

a library.19 E-book ownership is much higher among the

affluent. According to a recent report, 12 percent of those

earning $75,000 or more owned e-books, but only 3 percent

of those earning less than $30,000 did.20


All of language education is in crisis because of the decline

of libraries. We now know that libraries are utilized,

that they contribute powerfully to literacy development,

and have the potential of closing the gap between children

from high and low-income families in reading achievement.

Yet library funding is declining, and the situation is the

most serious in high-poverty areas. Library funding should

be expanded, not cut.

Democratic societies need libraries.21

The time has come for organizations such as NCTE

to campaign vigorously to strengthen public and school



1. Krashen, S. (2004). Chapter 2 in The power of reading

(Libraries Unlimited, Heinemann).

2. "Primary Sources: America's Teachers on America's

Schools.” http://www.scholastic.com/primarysources/

download.asp (March, 2010).

3. Harris Poll Quorum. (January 26, 2011). Created for the

American Library Association. Presented by Harris Interactive.

4. See, e.g., work by Keith Curry Lance and associates,


5. McQuillan, J. (1998). The literacy crisis: False claims and

real solutions. Heinemann.

6. Krashen, S., Lee, Sy, McQuillan, J. (2010). An analysis of

the PIRLS (2006) data: Can the school library reduce the

effect of poverty on reading achievement? CSLA Journal

(California Association for School Librarians), 34.

7. Keith Curry Lance, op cit.

8. Krashen, op cit.

9. A good example is Neuman, S., and Celano, D. (2001).

Access to print in low-income and middle-income communities.

Reading Research Quarterly, 36(1): 8-26.

10. Ibid.

11. Krashen, S. (2011). Protecting students against the effects

of poverty: Libraries. New England Reading Association

Journal 46 (2): 17-21.

12. American Library Association (2010). The state of America's

libraries. American Libraries (Special Issue).

13. Kelley, M. (2010). Budget survey: Bottoming out? Library

Journal. http://www.libraryjournal.com/lj/home/888434264/


14. American Library Association, op cit.

15. American Association of School Librarians. (2010).

Libraries count! National longitudinal survey of school

library programs. American Library Association.

16. American Library Association, op cit.

17. Whelen, D. (2011). DOE zeroes out Improving Literacy

Through Libraries program. School Library Journal. http://



18. American Library Association, op cit, p. 18.

19. Herring, M.Y. (2001). 10 reasons why the Internet is no

substitute for a library. American Library Association.



20. Jansen, J. (2010). Use of the Internet in higher-income

households. Pew Research Center. http://pewinternet.


21. Kranisch, N., Ed. (2001). Libraries & libraries: The cornerstone

of liberty. American Library Association.

Note: I thank Stephen Krashen for his helpful discussion

regarding the research on libraries, and my husband, Daniel

Runyan, for his editorial suggestions.

Yvonne Siu-Runyan is NCTE President and professor emerita

from the University of Northern Colorado. She can be reached at


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